The last time that Tennessee and Kentucky squared off the Volunteers embarrassed the Wildcats, and those aren’t my words; those are the words of Kentucky sophomore forward Alex Poythress. In an interview Friday, Poythress said “they came and embarrassed us” when he was asked about last season’s loss to the Vols in Knoxville. Poythress also said “we owe them one.” That is a good mindset to have if you are Kentucky, but getting redemption is easier said than done when you are as young as the Wildcats are this year.
Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein are the only Kentucky players that remember last season’s 88-58 loss to Tennessee, because they are the only players that remain from last season’s team. This year Kentucky is led by Poythress, Cauley-Stein and five freshmen, albeit five-star freshmen, but freshmen nonetheless. Kentucky will be matching up against a Tennessee front line that is big and experienced and will give Kentucky fits.
Julius Randle is the best player on this Kentucky roster and a potential top-five pick, and on Saturday he will get his biggest test of the season against Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon. Stokes and Maymon are two of the largest and strongest players in the post in college basketball and are without a doubt the strongest starting duo. On Saturday afternoon Randle will know what it is like to play against NBA-caliber strength. Randle is a great scorer and rebounder, but the size and strength of the Vols will push him further out on the court than he wants to go. Getting offensive rebounds against the Tennessee low-post tandem will be the hardest test Randle has had to date.
Another problem for the Wildcats will be the defense — or better yet the lack of defense — that will be played by the Harrison twins. Both of the Aaron Harrison and Andrew Harrison are going to be playing in the NBA one day, but right now they are inexperienced players that do not give much effort on defense. They will be matched up against two senior guards, Jordan McRae and Antonio Barton, when they play against the Volunteers. McRae is a big, long scorer, and Barton is a heady point guard with a good three-point stroke and a good ball-handler. The Harrison twins have more athleticism and will surely be better pro prospects, but the old-man game that McRae and Barton bring to the table will drive them nuts on Saturday. Staying out of foul trouble will be key for both Harrison’s.
As evenly matched as this game will be, playing on the road in Rupp Arena is one of the hardest things to do in college basketball. Basketball and whiskey are the only things people in Kentucky care about, so game-days at Rupp get loud and rowdy. Tennessee isn’t going to walk in there and take the game away from Kentucky, but they will give the young Cats a test.
For Kentucky this is more than a normal regular-season game; this is a game that will give them a chance to see how much they have grown. Sure, they lost on the road last week to Arkansas, but that is what happens when young teams go on the road in crazed environments. Plenty of good, young teams have lost games like that, but really talented, young teams take care of business at home. That won’t be easy against a veteran-laden Tennessee squad.